Republicans on the bubble are campaigning furiously ahead of Tuesday, when Fox News averages the most recent national polls and determines who makes the cut for the first televised debate of the 2016 presidential contest.
At least seven of 10 available invitations for Thursday’s prime time faceoff are as good as delivered, if unofficial polling averages from RealClearPolitics.com and Huffington Post are reliable indicators. It’s the final few podiums on stage inside Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena that are up for grabs, driving hopeful contenders to jam pack their campaign schedules with national television and radio appearances in an effort to pad their poll numbers and qualify for the main event.
“We’re right there on the bubble,” Jeff Miller, a top adviser to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, told the Washington Examiner on Friday. “But we’re confident we’ll get on the debate stage.”
The top ten candidates for the Republican presidential nomination heading into the weekend were,
Per the RealClearPolitics average of national polls:
- New York businessman Donald Trump (20.8 percent);
- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (13.7);
- Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (12.2);
- Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (6.8);
- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (6.3);
- Retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson (6.2);
- Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (5.5);
- Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (5.2);
- Ohio Gov. John Kasich (3.5); and
- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (3.0).
The Huffington Post average ranked the White House hopefuls in a slightly different order, although like RealClearPolitics, it showed Trump leading and Perry in eleventh place — less than one percentage point out of the top 10.
For those among the 16 announced major GOP contenders who don’t poll high enough to make prime time, Fox News is offering a consolation prize in the way of a candidate forum televised earlier Thursday evening.
The Republicans headed for the undercard dismiss the main event as preferable but hardly essential. It’s still early, their advisors say, and missing the debate won’t stall momentum in the crucial early primary states. Veteran Republican operatives aren’t buying the bravado. The potentially excluded candidates know the debate matters, explaining their rush to boost polling through national media interviews and the relentless advertising on Fox News, conservatives’ favorite news source, by their super PACs.
“No candidate wants to be relegated to kids’ table. They would all rather sit with the adults,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who has advised multiple presidential candidates. “This is a catch-22: They can’t be loved unless they are seen, but they can’t be seen unless they are already loved enough to make the big the debate. It’s got to be frustrating.”
The first debate of nine scheduled (so far) marks an inflection point in the campaign. With it, the primary enters a new, more competitive phase.
Debates usually raise name identification and give voters outside of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada a glimpse of many of the candidates for the first time, and offer them their first opportunity to appear presidential. Elevated recognition combined with a strong performance can propel underdogs into contention, solidify frontrunners, and perhaps more important than any of that, boost fundraising and grassroots enthusiasm for their campaigns.
To date, the candidates have focused most of their ire at President Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton; there should be plenty of that on Thursday. But this debate also could mark the beginning of intraparty warfare between the candidates, as underdogs pick fights with frontrunners in a bid to cast doubt on their conservative credentials and diminish any aura of strength and electability in the general election.
This event is unique, presenting special challenges to all of the participants, particularly those considered favorites for the nomination at this early stage.
With 10 candidates, the two-hour broadcast has enough room for about only eight to 10 minutes of talk-time per participant. Then there’s Trump. The bombastic billionaire has a habit of making controversial statements and leveling personal attacks. Don’t take the bait, Republicans who have experience prepping candidates for debates advise, adding that Thursday’s group would be best served using the event to introduce themselves and their policies to voters.
“I would relax and not overreact to anything somebody says about you,” said Republican consultant Eric Fehrnstrom, who advised Mitt Romney during his two presidential campaigns and helped the 2012 GOP nominee prep for more than 20 primary debates. “The better thing is to focus on your own game.”
Disclosure: The author’s wife works as an adviser to Scott Walker.